Bulls try to rebound against Providence
TAMPA - A hug just won't do. The University of South Florida men's basketball team needs something more uplifting to avoid turning a feel-good story into a late-season horror flick. "We need a win," Bulls coach Stan Heath said. "A win would make us feel good." The Bulls have three regular-season games remaining, starting with tonight's showdown against Providence at the Sun Dome. Following a school-record four-game Big East winning streak - a streak that began with an overtime win at Providence on Jan. 23 and had USF on the cusp of cracking the Top 25 for the first time in school history - the Bulls have lost four of their last five. There is no longer talk of USF being on the NCAA Tournament bubble, or of Heath being in the running for national coach of the year honors, or chatter about junior guard Dominique Jones as the nation's most dangerous scorer. Instead, USF's recent stretch has dropped it to 12th in the Big East standings.The Bulls' mission now is simple: Climb as far back up the standings as possible before the Big East Tournament starts next month at Madison Square Garden. "It's just a matter of having a focus to win," said senior guard Chris Howard. "Our energy level and attention to detail (have slacked off recently). During that (winning) stretch, we created offense through our defense, getting deflections, getting out and running. "We just have to find a way to find that energy, and defensively take teams out of what they want to do." During their four-game winning streak in the Big East, the Bulls averaged 81.2 points a game, forcing turnovers and creating fast-break opportunities that have disappeared recently. The Bulls are averaging 57.2 points in the past five games, the only win a 65-57 victory against Cincinnati on Feb. 16. So, what has changed? "We were up and down the court," Heath said. "We've got to create that style out there on the court. Nobody is going to give that to us." Nothing amplifies USF's recent play more than the struggles of Jones, who burst onto the national radar by scoring a career-high 46 points in the first meeting against the Friars. However, as USF has struggled to get into the open court and create points off its defense recently, Jones has had a difficult time finding his points. Jones scored just 12 points in USF's 74-49 loss at Villanova on Wednesday -- the fewest points the Bulls have scored this season - and he is averaging 16.2 in the last five games, five points below his season average and more than 20 points below his torrid pace in consecutive wins against Providence, Seton Hall, Pittsburgh and Georgetown this season. "Maybe I'm doing a little too much thinking when I get so open," Jones said after the Villanova loss. "I just need to focus, look at film, regroup and get this team back on track." The best the Bulls can do is win out and finish .500 in the Big East, likely good enough for a first-round bye in the tournament. With a good showing in New York, USF could end up making a trip to March Madness for the first time in 18 years. But to have a chance, the Bulls must rediscover their winning ways in a hurry.
Reporter Scott Carter can be reached at (813) 259-7128.